In early March of 2020, there was rising publicconcern that the UK was taking an altogether different approach to its neighbours, leading some people to joke that Britain was the world’s “control group”. To allay public fears, the health Secretary Matt Hancock wrote an op-ed in The Telegraph on March 15th claiming that “herd immunity” was not part of the government’s plan. Here’s the full quote:
We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy. Our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS through contain, delay, research and mitigate.
Now Dominic Cummings – the former chief advisor to Boris Johnson, who left No. 10 “with immediate effect” in mid November – has claimed that the government did intend to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy. At 3:38 this afternoon, Cummings tweeted:
Media generally abysmal on covid but even I’ve been surprised by 1 thing: how many hacks have parroted Hancock’s line that ‘herd immunity wasn’t the plan’ when ‘herd immunity by Sep’ was *literally the official plan in all docs/graphs/meetings* until it was ditched
In a subsequent tweet, Cummings elaborated on why the government’s original plan was “ditched”. He writes:
In week of 9/3, No10 was made aware by various people that the official plan wd lead to catastrophe. It was then replaced by Plan B. But how ‘herd immunity by Sep’ cd have been the plan until that week is a fundamental issue in the whole disaster
What Cummings says is of course broadly consistent with the statements Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance had made up until the date of Hancock’s article, as well as with the infamous ‘UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011’. In a hearing of the Health and Social Care Committee on March 5th, Whitty said, “what we’re very keen to do is not intervene until the point we absolutely have to, so as to minimise economic and social disruption.”
Opinions obviously differ about whether the original plan would “lead to catastrophe”, but it’s interesting to have an insider’s perspective on the Government’s early planning.
Stop Press: In a further tweet, Cummings has accused the Government of lying. He writes:
No10 decided to lie: ‘herd immunity has never been… part of our coronavirus strategy’. V foolish, & appalling ethics, to lie about it. The right line wd have been what PM knows is true: our original plan was wrong & we changed when we realised
Dominic Cummings – director of the Vote Leave campaign and former chief adviser to Boris Johnson – has written a pro-lockdown Twitter thread. However, I don’t find his arguments very convincing. What follows is a point-by-point response.
1/ Covid… Summary evidence on lockdowns. For UK political pundits obsessed with spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns, cf. SW econ did a bit WORSE than Denmark which locked down, AND far more deaths in Sweden:
Not all sources indicate that Sweden did worse than Denmark in terms of GDP growth last year. For example, the IMF gives Sweden’s growth as –2.8% and Denmark’s as –3.3%. In fact, according to the IMF, only a handful of European countries had higher growth than Sweden last year.
It’s true that Denmark has had fewer COVID-19 deaths. However, it’s unlikely that lockdowns account for this difference. During the first wave, Denmark had zero days of mandatory stay-at-home orders, and did not introduce mandatory business closures until March 18th. But the country did introduce border screening on March 4th, followed by a total border closure on March 14th. Hence its success during the first wave is more plausibly due to border controls.
During the second wave, Denmark had about the same level of restrictions as Sweden, and in any case saw a moderate number of deaths.
More importantly, the argument that “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t very convincing. Sweden’s age-adjusted excess mortality up to week 51 of 2020 was just 1.7% – below the European average.
The epidemic in Sweden was already more advanced by the time its neighbours locked down. And since lockdowns don’t have much impact unless case numbers are low, locking down probably wouldn’t have made a big difference. What’s more, the Baltics are similar to the Nordics in terms of climate and population density, and once you include them in the comparison, Sweden no longer stands out.
Cumming’s tweet also links to an article by the economist Noah Smith, which argues that “lockdowns were good”. However, Smith doesn’t discuss any of the evidence contradicting his thesis, of which there is plenty. See here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
One of the biggest misunderstandings, spread by political pundits even now, is the ‘tradeoff’ argument. Fact: evidence clear that fast hard effective action best policy for economy AND for reducing deaths/suffering
The argument that lockdowns are good for both public health and economic output – that there’s no trade-off – onlyworks if locking down enables you to completely suppress the virus.
Once complete suppression has been achieved, the lockdown must be combined with a well-functioning system of contact tracing, and a well-functioning system of border controls. In the absence of these measures, a new epidemic will almost certainly emerge once the lockdown is lifted.
There is strongevidence that the UK’s lockdowns were bad for the economy. Indeed, the UK had the second lowest GDP growth in 2020 out of all the major countries in Europe, and its worst recession for 300 years.
One could argue that the UK should have locked down earlier, but this is a bit like arguing China should have acted earlier to contain the epidemic in Wuhan. In other words, that ship sailed a long time ago.
What’s more, it’s doubtful whether the UK – which is much denser and more connected than, say, Australia – would have been able to contain the virus through measures like contact tracing and border controls.
Dominic Cummings has fired off his latest salvo against his former boss ahead of his appearance before MPs to give evidence on May 26th, laying into Boris Johnson and the Government for not locking down sooner, among other complaints.
The disgruntled former chief adviser to the Prime Minister wrote a series of posts on Twitter that began by criticising Sweden’s response before ranging over other issues including human challenge vaccine trials and the transparency of SAGE.
Those of us “obsessed with spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns” are treated to Dom’s “summary evidence on lockdowns”. Unfortunately for him, however, he seems to get his facts from somewhere other than the real world.
Dom takes a shot at the “trade-off argument” – the argument that lockdowns intended to control disease have a lot of downsides. He argues that Taiwan shows how “fast hard effective action [is the] best policy for [the] economy AND for reducing deaths/suffering”, and that “if you REALLY get your act together not only is [the] econ[omy] largely unscathed but life is [close to] normal”. He claims the Government is “totally hostile to learning from East Asia” because they and their advisers believe “Asians all do as they’re told it won’t work here”.
It’s true that East Asian countries have suffered considerably fewer deaths during the pandemic than the countries of Europe and the Americas. But the idea that that is because they imposed lockdowns hard and fast is palpable nonsense. Japan has not imposed a strict lockdown and neither has Taiwan or South Korea (see below). Worth recalling that South Korea has more commonly been lauded for avoiding hard lockdown by being so good at contact tracing, not for being fast to lock down hard. Contact tracing is also very unlikely to be the main reason for South Korea’s epidemic remaining small, but either way there is no basis to Dom’s claim that East Asia’s success is due to hard and fast lockdowns. As for Taiwan’s current “normal”, that involves very tight border restrictions that have been in place since February 6th 2020, and the country has just imposed new restrictions on the capital region Taipei.
According to this morning’s papers, Boris is to blame for Britain’s huge winter death toll from COVID-19. The reason? According to the Daily Mail‘s “sources”, i.e. Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister stubbornly resisted the advice of SAGE to impose a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ last autumn – which would have nipped rising infections in the bud, or something – instead introducing the tier system as a compromise. But he eventually caved in to pressure at the end of October after he was bullied into imposing a second lockdown by Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty. As he reluctantly agreed, the Prime Minister is alleged (by Dom) to have ruled out a third lockdown, saying: “No more ****ing lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands!”
Here’s Dom’s version of history, via the Mail, which recasts Boris as a liberty-loving lockdown sceptic.
The Prime Minister found himself outgunned when Mr Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock led the demand for a new clampdown on the disease.
Earlier in the pandemic, he had been supported by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who warned of the dire economic consequences of national lockdowns.
By October, Mr Sunak had moved closer to the stance of Mr Gove and Mr Hancock. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance strongly backed the position of Mr Gove and Mr Hancock.
A well-placed source said: “The PM hates the idea of lockdowns. He kept saying ‘there’s no evidence they even work’ and that ‘it goes against everything I’ve stood for’. But he was outnumbered – and ended up sitting in sullen silence as the others told him he had no choice.”
The tipping point reportedly came after a passionate speech by Mr Gove at a meeting with Mr Johnson and senior ministers.
“Michael said that if he didn’t impose a second lockdown there would be a catastrophe,” a source close to Mr Gove said.
“Hospitals would be over-run, people would be turned away from A&E and people would be dying in hospital corridors and hospital car parks.
“He told the PM he would have to send soldiers into hospitals to keep people out.
“TV film of that would be beamed around the globe. Was that the image of his post-Brexit Britain he wanted the world to see? It was devastating. The PM had no answer.”
Insiders say that from that point Mr Johnson “gave in to the inevitable” – and agreed to a second lockdown. But he also made it clear that it was to be the last, and under no circumstances world he agree to a third lockdown.
One said: “You have to understand how difficult this has been for the PM. The free spirit libertarian and journalist mischief maker in him wanted to join the lockdown sceptics revolt. But faced with being told by his Cabinet and experts that he would be held responsible for tens of thousands of deaths he knew he had no choice.”
The problem with this attempt to smear Boris is that it takes it for granted that he was wrong to rule out a ‘circuit breaker’ in the autumn and wrong to resist the pressure from the lockdown hawks surrounding him to impose a second lockdown in November. In fact, he was right on both counts.
First, let’s deal with the canard that a ‘circuit breaker’ in the autumn would have nipped surging infections in the bud, thereby massively reducing the ‘second wave’ death toll.
The argument relies on a counter-factual – a claim about what would have happened if Boris had done SAGE’s bidding. Counter-factuals are usually difficult to falsify, but not in this case because we have a ‘control’ in the form of Wales which imposed a ‘fire break’ lockdown from October 23rd to November 9th. In spite of this, the trajectory of confirmed cases in Wales, on a per capita basis, was almost identical to that of England.
What about the claim that Boris was wrong to resist the pressure to impose a second lockdown in November? It’s become conventional wisdom that cases in England only started to fall after the second lockdown was imposed. But as Edinburgh University Professor Simon Woods pointed out in a paper for Biometrics, infections were falling before all three lockdowns were imposed, including the second. Instead of relying on the modelling produced by Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College – one of the models that SAGE based its projections and recommendations on and which no doubt informed the views of the lockdown hawks in their showdown with Boris, including Gove’s hyperbolic ‘soldiers in hospitals’ claim – Woods estimated the daily number of new fatal infections from the data on daily deaths and fatal disease duration. He summarised his findings in a recent article in the Spectator:
Before the second lockdown it was argued that the tier system was ineffective and that cases were surging. But the reconstructions suggest that fatal infections — and by implication Covid infections generally — were not surging. They were in decline having peaked earlier.
Here’s the model produced by Simon Woods and his colleague Ernst Wit, with whom he wrote another paper that came to the same conclusion. It shows that the R was below one, and hence infection levels were falling (in most regions and in total), before the second lockdown.
As the model shows, far from the restrictions introduced in the second lockdown causing infections to fall, they were already falling before the lockdown was imposed. In other words, Boris was right to resist calls to ratchet up the ‘tier system’ his Government had introduced in October and the hawks surrounding him in Downing Street were wrong.
There’s one more piece of evidence to suggest Boris was right to resist a ‘circuit breaker’ and right to push back against SAGE’s religious-like attachment to Ferguson’s modelling – Sweden. Sweden didn’t impose a ‘fire break’ last autumn or a lockdown last winter, yet its trajectory of Covid deaths per million is remarkably similar to the U.K’s, as can be seen in the graph below.
It’s also worth pointing out – for the thousandth time – that in spite of not locking down for the whole of 2020 Sweden experienced fewer Covid deaths per million than most European countries, including the U.K. That suggests that the models the lockdown hawks were basing their prognoses of doom on were wrong and had Boris stuck to his guns and resisted their scaremongering, as the Swedish Prime Minister did, the U.K. would not have experienced an even more deadly ‘second wave’. The Swedish example shows that lockdowns don’t appear to do anything to reduce Covid deaths. When Boris said “there’s no evidence they even work” he was spot on.
One final point: the Telegraph reports that Cummings is planning to blame Boris for the U.K.’s failure to close its borders at the beginning of the pandemic when he testifies before a House of Commons select committee next month.
Dominic Cummings will accuse Boris Johnson of blocking plans to close Britain’s borders and putting lives at risk by failing to prevent the spread of Covid from abroad early in the pandemic.
Cummings may well be right that closing Britain’s borders in January of last year, particularly to travellers from China, would have been sensible. It certainly seems to have contributed to Taiwan’s astonishingly low death toll in spite of Taiwan never having imposed a lockdown. But he’s wrong to blame Boris for this omission. As I pointed out on Lockdown Sceptics in May of last year, when the British Government decided not to impose port-of-entry screening it was following the advice of the Newly Emerging Respiratory Virus Advisory Group (NERVTAG).
The Department of Health and Social Care asked NERVTAG to hold a meeting to consider the need for port-of entry screening in January and one was duly convened on January 13th chaired by Peter Horby, an Oxford professor with links to the World Health Organisation. At that point, seven other countries had introduced temperature screening at airports for visitors from Wuhan, the centre of the viral outbreak in Hubei. The NERVTAG recommendation was that there would be no point in doing this if exit screening at Wuhan airports was already taking place, although they had no evidence it was.
At the next NERVTAG meeting on January 21st, this one attended by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer of England, and his deputy Jonathan Van-Tam, the boffins were asked to reconsider the question, but again they passed the buck to the Chinese authorities. By now, human-to-human transmission had been confirmed, i.e. China’s attempt to cover-up the outbreak had been exposed and greater doubt should have been cast on any information coming out of the Communist dictatorship. Nonetheless, NERVTAG’s response was the same: “Neil Ferguson noted that from the modelling perspective, with exit screening in place in China, effectiveness of port-of-entry screening in the UK would be low and potentially only detect those who were not sick before boarding but became sick during the flight. NERVTAG felt there was a lack of clarity on the exit screening process in Wuhan, although it was thought that this process would be robust, and statements had been released by Chinese authorities about stopping febrile passengers from travelling. However, as noted, there were no data on the implementation of this programme.” (Minutes of the NERVTAG Wuhan Novel Coronavirus Second Meeting: January 21st 2020)
A lack of clarity on the exit screening process in Wuhan?!? You can say that again. As I’ve flagged up before, the Chinese authorities cut off travel from Hubei to the rest of China on January 23rd, two days after this NERVTAG meeting, but not from Hubei to the rest of the world, including the U.K. If the exit screening process in Wuhan was as “robust” as the boffins thought – if the Chinese authorities really were “stopping febrile passengers from travelling” – why was the process not good enough to prevent infection spreading to the rest of the country?
I’m basing all this on the minutes of the NERVTAG meetings which are available online here.
In short, Boris isn’t to blame for Britain’s failure to close its borders at the beginning of the pandemic last year – that would be Neil Ferguson, Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam – and he was quite right to hold out against an entirely pointless ‘circuit breaker’ last autumn and right, too, to fight against attempts to browbeat him into imposing a second lockdown in November. The only thing he did wrong was not to stick to his guns about imposing a third.
Stop Press: I got some of the data for the above argument from Phillip W. Magness’s excellent post for AIER in which he debunked the pro-lockdown conspiracy theory that the only reason Boris didn’t impose a ‘circuit breaker’ last autumn was because he fell under the spell of Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and Anders Tegnell.